Mar 6, 2019 in Literature

Summary of Gangsters without Borders Book by TW Ward

Gangsters without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran street gang is a book written by T. W. Ward. In the book, he narrates about the experiences of the Salvadoran gang members residing and operating within the city of Los Angeles. As ethnography, the book is a cultural study of the Salvadoran members of society with respect to their involvement in the gang and in a life of crime. In order to collect the material for his book, the author had to spend 8 years interacting closely with the gang members in order to understand their way of life and in some instances be able to see their perspective of the world, as we know it. The author then transfers this aspect of life on the streets with using vivid descriptions that can be found in this masterpiece. The book is partially memoir, partially biography as the author actively participates in some of the scenes narrated in the writings. Current paper examines the book with respect to the author’s methodology in researching the relevant material, the ethical dilemmas involved and how they were handled and the gender roles within the gang, as well as with respect to providing an overall critique for the author’s work.

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As stated in the title, Gangsters without borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang is a book in which the author studies the Salvadoran community in Los Angeles. Ethnography is by definition a qualitative study which involves seeking an explanation for problems or challenges of a given people, with their ethnicity as the uniting factor. In this case, the ethnic group that was being studied was the Salvadoran people living in Los Angeles (LA) and most of them were gang members. T. W. Ward spent about 8 years mingling with gang members in LA in order to get to know them well enough to understand their lives. Taking into consideration that the study is ethnographic, the relevant methods used would be observation, interviewing and surveys.


The author spends eight years of his life in the LA gang in order to see, speak and even commune with the Salvadoran gang members. He spends this time interacting with the people as a community, as well as on an individual basis, and it is the reason why he provides so accurate information on the way of life, beliefs and hopes of the Salvadoran street gangs in LA. In order to accomplish his task, the author explains his mission and obligations in the gang in order to release any tension that may be caused by his presence amongst criminals. It is a dangerous place and when the author willingly immerses himself into such environment, he is fully aware of the need for mutual understanding and respect with the participants of the study. He plays a role of a silent observer, with minimal interference and participation in the discussions of the study’s participants.


The author also uses interviews to receive some information on the background of the gang members. He, for examples, spends some time capturing the story of Jose Amaya in details with interest on the young man’s time in El Salvador and in LA, as well. The main objective of the writing is to understand why the Salvadoran youth joins gangs with respect not only to the US but also to their motherland. The fact that the author wanted to fully understand gang members as individuals necessitated the interviews as observations could only provide generalized answers to the research questions. In addition, observation was mainly done to suit the larger Salvadoran community thus, when the author dealt with matters that concerned individual gang members and their account of coming to America, the need for personal perspective could not be neglected. It is the reason why the author focused, to some extent, on the individual gang members like Jose Amaya who shared their life stories in detail with the author and consequently the reader.


The Salvadoran community in LA is very close and when the author needed to find out some basic aspects of their lives in El Salvador, how they came to the US and what they feel about their lives in LA, a survey was used. The author, however, did not have to make a telephone survey or walk from door to door. He discussed the various aspects of Salvadoran experiences with the participants from a general setting on the streets. The questions were random and not directed to any particular individual so that the author could ensure that the answers obtained could be applicable in the context of a majority of interviewed people. It enabled the author to gain a Salvadoran perspective of life both in El Salvador and on the streets of Los Angeles.

Ethical Dilemmas and How They Were Handled

Current study was ethnographic, which implies that the author had to insert himself into a totally new cultural context. T. W. Ward is not Salvadoran, but he had to study the life of Salvadoran street gangs in Los Angeles. He had to spend time with the gang members in order to understand their circumstances, their perspectives and their outlook on life in general. The first ethical dilemma would, thus, be in his understanding or attitude towards the Salvadoran community. Such dilemma was, however, checked by the fact that the author actually had to be in good relations with the gang members in order for them to allow his presence amongst them. He needed their collaboration to conduct the surveys and interviews, as well and thus, any to achieve it, any negative ideas about the Salvadoran people had to be eliminated. It can, thus, be stated that the researcher had to eliminate any forms of ethnic bias before starting the study.

Another dilemma would be in terms of protecting the confidentiality and privacy of the gang members. Street gangs are illegal in the US based on their activities especially in drugs and violence. The gangs themselves are considered legal but the activities they indulge in to make money or protect their territory are not in conformity with the law. The identity of the gang members had to be protected if the study is to be considered as ethically upright. The researcher is, however, a good citizen who owes it to his countrymen to report criminal activities and help the criminal justice system in apprehending criminals so that to fight crime. The challenge here is to carry out a sound research without compromising one’s standing as a good and responsible citizen of the US. The professionalism of the researcher took prevalence to the need for community policing based on the concept of the ‘greater good’. Understanding of criminal gangs is more important to preventing their existence in the future than apprehending one gang.

The Origins of This Particular Gang

In the book, Jose Amaya joins the gang because he feels lonely in the US after leaving his home in El Salvador. He is, thus, compelled to join the gang in his search for solace, where the gang becomes his second family away from El Salvador. The Salvadoran street gang in LA can be said to have started out as a unit of Salvadoran immigrants who needed to protect each other from the other street gangs within the LA area. In the 1980’s the immigrant communities were growing around the US and out of their economic challenges, they settled in the lower parts of the cities and towns. They lived in impoverished and slum areas all over the country, meaning they were often congested in very small areas. Competition for the available resources including jobs, food, water and sanitation facilities was high and it led to frequent conflicts that necessitated protection as the stronger ones were oppressing the weaker ones.

Emigrants had attendance of retreating into ethnic groupings. It was a logical thing to do for immigrants to strengthen their groups and organize their groups into formidable units. Through the groupings strategy, the gangs managed to expand beyond the LA neighborhood into the larger US and South America areas with branches in El Salvador, as well. The Salvadoran gangs, thus, originate from the immigrant communities of Salvadoran individuals who had come to the US to escape the poverty and violence at home. The problem is they do not succeed in escaping either poverty or violence and it leads to their gang involvement as they seek wealth and peace through their gang activities. The violence, in such case, is only the result of self-protection and gang conflicts.

When trying to understand such gangs, it is noted that the Salvadorans join the unit as a means to find their place in the US, being new immigrants. The challenge for them is to settle in a new place once they manage to escape the streets life of El Salvador and to avoid the hostilities from other street gangs once they reach the US. The gang today, however, does more than just helping and protecting the Salvadoran immigrants seeing as they recruit members back in El Salvador, as well.

Gender Roles within the Gang

In Gangsters without Borders: An Ethnography of a Salvadoran Street Gang, the gender role is constructed around the basics of the Salvadoran community. The women are by definition, considered as inferior to the men and thus, they usually play role of an object and not a person. The men are mostly responsible for the sale of drugs, the protection of the gang’s territory and the introduction of new gang members to the streets. The women in their part are restricted to being the victims and nurturers, where they carry drugs and firearms, take the position of the look out during raids and robberies, take care of the wounded gang members and act as entertainment for the men and their friends. Speaking about the gender roles within the gang, it must be noted that women were not as free as they believed they were.

Sex and Sexuality

The men in the gang are relatively good-looking, although they have embraced the concept of homosexuality as a reality of the society within which they live. Homosexuality is a common practice in the prison system and it is, thus, expected that the stories they hear from those who have been incarcerated at one time or another influence their thoughts on the matter. Moreover, while they do not encourage the practice, the men here are seen accepting that it is real and do not really condemn it. In the gangs, a woman’s sexuality is not hers to own. The gang women’s sexuality can be used to trade favors amongst their men, with a woman being given out to another gang member as a gift for a night or two in exchange for something else. It implies that the concept of sexuality is not respected within the gang as much as one would expect in the 21st century. Here, women are also expected to cater for every need and whim of the men in terms of sexual activities and rape is not a rare event within the ranks of the gang. The women are left to either be the submissive ‘tramps’ who give in willingly to the men in exchange for their protection and providence or the feisty ‘bitches’ who defend themselves from their male assaulters and refuse to live in the shadows of the male gang members. Most of the women here chose the former, seeing as the gang members are not willing to take rejection in a civil way.


There is absolutely no element of nurturing within the gang. The gang members who have families strive to keep their wives and children away from the gang’s business although most members do not have families. They stay away from their mothers and sisters, who if involved, can be used as bait or leverage in negotiations, blackmailing or revenge. The decision to keep them away is, thus, a wise one. It is seen, however, that in cases where gang members become ill or need cover, women are called to take care and provide nursing. The concept of nurturing is, thus, limited in its existence within the gang and only the women can be expected to show concern or deal with moments that require tenderness. This side is, however, restricted to the times when they are needed, seeing as it is considered a major weakness in the fast paced life on the streets.

Gang Participation

The women only take on the minor roles like stealing, using forged credit cards and being the look out. It limits their involvement, thus, impeding their gradual promotion within the gang. Age is, however, a factor in that the gang girls are obliged to respect the older female members in the gang and even consider them mentors. The male members are involved in the violent crimes and even entrusted with decision-making within the gang, thus, improving their chances at promotion and rising through the ranks as they spend more time in the gang.

Critique and Conclusion

From a general perspective, current book is very informative on the activities and circumstances of the Salvadoran street gangs. The author has managed to outline the most of the mythical notions that surround gang members through the eight years of research he endures. Through current study, the assumptions about gang involvement among the minority populations is the US are demystified and it is now clear that the reason such populations are prone to gang involvement lies in their need for protection and guidance once they arrive to the US from their homeland. Another important conclusion that can be drawn from the book is the role of the girls and women within the gang. Like in every other patriarchal community, the Salvadoran community is formed with respect to gender roles. The women remain seen as inferior and possession of men rather than equal members of the gangs. They are used and abused sexually, as well as mentally and they are given the minor and non-violent roles, thus impeding their growth into higher ranks within the gang. Essentially, the author offers the insight that is significant in the war against gang related crimes in the US given that there is a clear narrative on the formation and operation of the ethnicity-based gangs.


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